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HEATH HORIZONS : NUTRITION : Hold the Pickle--and the Fat : CONSUMERS DO NOT HAVE TO LOAD UP ON CALORIES WHEN THEY WANT A QUICK MEAL. FAST-FOOD CHAINS ARE CHANGING THEIR MENUS TO MEET THE PUBLIC'S NEEDS

March 29, 1992|ROSE DOSTI and DEBORAH KIDUSHIM-ALLEN | Dosti, a Times food writer , and Kidushim-Allen, a registered dietitian, are authors of "Light Style: The Low Fat, Low Cholesterol, Low Sodium Way to Good Food and Good Health," (HarperSanFrancisco), $14.95). and

There was a time not long ago when all you could get to eat at McDonald's, Jack in the Box or Burger King was a burger, fries and a shake or soft drink.

Not any more.

In an attempt to junk their junk-food image while keeping pace with grown-up baby boomers and America's concern with fat and cholesterol, the fast-food industry has done away with saturated fat, tossed the salt, and beefed up its menus with such fare as skinless chicken sandwiches, whole-grain buns, low-fat yogurt and low-fat shakes.

Health experts are delighted, having for years wagged their fingers at the fast-food industry for offering foods too high in fat and calories, especially to their target audience--children.

"Now, at least, people can have it both ways, with and without the fat, and that's progress," said Darlene Dreon, registered dietitian at UC Berkeley.

Jayne Hurley, nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a longtime critic of fatty fast foods, agreed.

"We applaud the fast-food restaurants for cleaning up their act. Considering that ground beef is the number one source of fat in the American diet, we're pleased McDonald's cut the fat where it really counts--in the hamburger," Hurley said.

She is referring to McDonald's 320-calorie hamburger, the McLean Deluxe, which contains no more than 10% fat (half the normal amount of fat of the regular hamburger), made possible by using carrageen, a natural vegetable gum, and water. The patty is lower in fat than even the extra-lean ground beef you can buy in most supermarkets. A generic version of the product is being offered at Safeway, and Giant, another supermarket chain, on the West Coast has come up with a copycat of the McLean hamburger meat.

The McLean Deluxe hamburger, however, appears to have a way to go in the taste department. Betty Nowlin, a registered dietitian and California Dietetic Assn. spokeswoman, said: "I was very disappointed after taking one bite. It was not my idea of a good hamburger. I was expecting a plump, juicy hamburger. Instead, it was dry and tough and didn't taste like a real hamburger. I would rather have food that tastes good, and cut down on high-fat foods at other meals."

And of 10 McDonald's customers randomly asked, not one said he or she would order a McLean hamburger again.

Like McDonald's, other fast-food chains, such as Jack in the Box, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King, have also added lower-fat choices in products ranging from cooking fat to salad dressing. This is an attempt to meet the needs of 68% of fast-food customers who, according to a National Restaurant Assn. survey, are concerned about diet and nutrition.

The question is whether these menus with lower-fat products help stem the rising tide of obesity. Fast foods make up 20% of dining in America. Twenty-six percent of adults and 23% of children in the country can be classified as obese--20% over their ideal weight--because of sedentary lifestyles and, in part, high-fat diets.

Nowlin said that fast foods have "little or no impact" on the overall health of most children. "For most kids, an occasional meal at a fast-food restaurant will not upset an otherwise balanced diet. Kids who eat fast foods regularly, however, will need to learn how to choose menu items carefully."

Hurley said that even though fast-food chains have made changes, most people eating at fast-food restaurants end up with a meal that is too fatty and salty. "Even if you choose a McLean hamburger you can still walk away with a fatty meal. Add a large order of fries and apple pie and the meal will balloon to 47 grams of fat. That's three-fourths of all the fat one should eat all day, and that's too much fat."

To varying degrees, the fast-food industry appears to be trying to help change that. According to the National Restaurant Assn., 29% of the population is staunchly concerned with fast-food nutrition and eat only the salads and low-fat meals, while 39% are concerned but break down now and then and eat the traditional Big Mac or Whopper. Most major chains vacillate in catering to the 29% who care deeply about nutrition.

According to Philip Lempert, publisher of "The Lempert Report," a trend-reporting publication, the chains are giving consumers what they want. "The American consumer is saying we want healthier foods; we want lower-fat foods; we want variety; we're tired of hamburgers seven days a week," Lempert said.

In an attempt to boost sales while bringing baby boomers back into its fold, McDonald's is testing new menu items. Among those selections are lasagna, fettuccine alfredo, spaghetti and meatballs, and pizza, which have won some praise from critics. "The spaghetti and meatballs are a good product; so are the yogurt desserts and sorbets," Lempert said. But declining sales show that the new items have not had much impact, and 50% to 80% of the sales still come from hamburgers, Lempert said.

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